A major Chicago media outlet has decided that the facts support general aviation's position on the FAA funding debate.
The Sun-Times News Group editorial board (the editorial voice for the Chicago Sun-Times, the Daily Southtown, and several other newspapers serving the greater Chicago area) recently met with a representative for the airlines and then later with AOPA President Phil Boyer. In the board's editorial following the meetings, it noted that the airlines and the FAA want "user fees on private planes to make them cough up more" toward the cost of the NextGen air traffic control modernization project.
"But general aviation and corporate jet advocates don't concede that they are not paying their fair share," said the editorial writers. "They say user fees will cripple private aviation — at great cost to smaller airports and rural communities that rely on such planes. Some of them believe the current taxes they and the airlines pay will be adequate to fund the new system; but if taxes have to go up, they favor an increase in the fuel tax that they now pay."
The editorial notes that the number of private aircraft will likely increase, placing greater demands on the ATC system. "They should bear more of the costs. And if user fees are so crippling, perhaps higher fuel taxes can be the way to get them to shoulder a greater share."
Said Boyer, "That's exactly why the GA community has endorsed H.R.2881, the House version of the FAA funding bill. We agree that the ATC system needs to be modernized, but we have always said that it could be done within the existing tax structure. And we're willing to accept an inflation-adjusted fuel tax increase to make it happen, which is what the House bill proposes to do."
This isn't the first time that the Sun-Times News Group editorial board has weighed the facts and sided with general aviation. They supported maintaining Chicago's "lakefront jewel" Meigs Field and roundly condemned Mayor Richard M. Daley after his midnight raid that destroyed the airport.
User fees or bust. Two powerful senators drew a line in the sand on July 12 and made it clear that there would be severe penalties if their FAA funding bill (S.1300) is changed or disapproved.
"Commercial airline passengers shouldn't continue to subsidize corporate jets," said aviation subcommittee Chairman John D. Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) during a Senate Finance Committee hearing. "If we don't restore equity, then as chairman of this aviation subcommittee, I will address the equity issue by looking for ways to limit general aviation access to congested airspace."
Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) said, "We're going to have a fair bill or no bill, and I'm prepared to go to the mat."
But fair can be in the eyes of the beholder. While some of the senators and the witnesses argued that the airlines pay more than their fair share to support the air traffic control system, Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) noted that, "We've had preferential tax treatment for the airlines, particularly in pensions."
And while Sen. Lott chastised most of the aviation community for being unwilling to pay more, Sen. Roberts said that wasn't the case for GA.
"The general aviation community is not unreceptive to an increase in the gas tax," said Roberts. "They're for modernization as well."
While Sen. Rockefeller believes that the proposed $25 per flight user fee for turbine aircraft "isn't exactly a backbreaker," and that "90 percent of general aviation aircraft are excluded" from paying, Sen. Roberts said, "It's not the fee, it is the structure. All of general aviation is opposed to the fee, even the 90 percent that are exempt."
And while neither Rockefeller nor Lott mentioned that S.1300 would eliminate the 4.3 cents per gallon fuel tax the airlines currently pay, it didn't slip past Roberts or Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.)
"I don't think that giving the airlines a tax break is the best way to start modernization," said Roberts.
Sen. Bingaman questioned, with all that the FAA was trying to accomplish, "why would you eliminate the fuel tax on the airlines?" He noted that the ATC user fee would likely discourage flights to smaller communities. And witness Gerald Dillingham of the Government Accountability Office agreed, noting that regional air carrier profits are so slim that "the $25 fee could put them over the edge."
Dillingham restated his contention from previous hearings, saying that the current excise tax-based funding system "could support all FAA activities, including NextGen" — the ATC modernization program. And he said that forecasted revenues to the aviation trust fund could support increased FAA spending.
Peter R. Orszag, director of the Congressional Budget Office, said that with a forecast 7 percent annual growth in aviation tax revenues, the trust fund would bring in some $158 billion over the next 10 years, versus an inflation-adjusted FAA budget baseline of $135 billion. "We [the FAA] don't feel starved for funds," said FAA Administrator Marion Blakey in response to a question from Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.).
"I can't begin to tell you how strongly Sen. Rockefeller feels about the $25 ATC modernization surcharge or user fee," said AOPA President Phil Boyer. "And we have tried to explain to him how dead set we are against any user fee on any segment of aviation, regardless of the amount.
"But general aviation is willing to contribute more toward system modernization through the fuel. That's why we have endorsed H.R.2881, the House FAA funding bill. We would ask the Senate to give fair consideration to the taxing and funding concepts in that bill."
The funding authority for the FAA and the government's ability to collect aviation taxes will expire in about 80 days. If an FAA funding bill (called a "reauthorization bill") is not approved before then, the FAA could be forced to stop operations.